Robert Fearn Steele was born in Fremantle, Western Australia on 29 May 1903. As a young man he trained as a shop window dresser, and produced live performances which played at silent film screenings, before the main attraction. He came to New Zealand while acting in a minor role in play The Ghost Train, which toured in 1927. The following year he settled in Wellington, and again went into business as a window dresser.
While in Wellington in 1930, he set up the NZ Amateur Cinema League and wrote, directed and acted in their first production, The Wings of Romance. The 16mm short involved the inventor of a safety device for aeroplanes.
The following year in Auckland he completed Shattered, a more ambitious amateur film. Promoted as "the first Auckland-produced photo-play with sound", it dealt with how the war affected a young New Zealand soldier, and his reactions on returning home. The film was a costly experiment; newspapers noted that screenings were marred by inaudible sound and frequent breakages.
Steele returned to Australia where he set up company British-Australasian Talking Pictures, and began making films in the standard 35mm gauge for theatrical release. His year in Queensland resulted in four films, the principal one being Corroboree (1935) set in the Palm Island aboriginal settlement. He lost a valuable underwater camera in a shark attack, and narrowly escaped with his life thanks to a quick-thinking local assistant hauling him to safety.
Back in Auckland by 1937, Steele was soon gaining a reputation as a portrait photographer for the L’Atelier studio at 322 Queen Street. Soon Steele took over the studio. The building had already made key contributions to local film history. Motion pictures made their New Zealand debut in November 1895, on a series of kinetoscopes elsewhere in the building; and on Christmas Eve 1898, the first public screening of an New Zealand film was hosted there.
Prior to volunteering for war service, Steele had already begun hosting parties for visiting theatrical companies and celebrities who visited to have their portraits taken. During the war he began making 16mm films again in a small way — this time for Neuline Studios, another company he took over and expanded. Among his Neuline films was this 1945 promotional film for DB Breweries. Steele's filmmaking ambitions faced a setback on the night he hosted a farewell party at his studio for well-known British singer Gracie Fields; a fire broke out in the nearby Neuline studios, destroying films, projectors and cameras.
In 1946 Steele was able to order up-to-date professional equipment while on a business trip to the United States, where he witnessed how extensively 16mm films were being used for training and promotional work. To the refurbished and re-equipped Neuline Studios Steele added a hand-picked staff, among them critic and award-winning amateur filmmaker Ron Bowie, poet ARD Fairburn, journalist John Gundry, and cameraman Leslie Fraser. His preferred voice as commentator was that of radio personality Selwyn Toogood, who also appeared in many of Steele's films as an actor. The two became firm friends.
In the four years to 1950 Neuline produced roughly 60 films, including Fighting Fish, about big-game fishing. Most were sponsored by commercial or industrial firms. Some were made for government departments under sub-contract from the National Film Unit, which had limited capacity for producing 16mm colour films. One of the longest, the 16mm colour and sound film Here is New Zealand (1948) was purchased by the Tourist Department. A mute copy of this film was given to Bathie Stuart, "the best-known New Zealander in America", to use on her lecture tours. Steele had met Stuart in 1946 and would make other travel films for and with her, in years to come.
As well as pioneering the commercial production of 16mm industrial and promotional films, Neuline further developed the non-theatrical market by arranging screenings in department stores, workplaces and small halls. It ran a free continuous cinema at the 1949 NZ Industries Fair, showing its films to 25,000 people over six days. A small number of Neuline films were circulated by the National Film Library.
Steele also shot experimental footage of dancers Freda Stark and Rowena Jackson. In 1949 two Neuline films were blown-up to 35mm for theatrical release; What Health Stamps Do, showing how stamp sales were supporting children’s health camps, and Projects for Power, about the State Hydro-Electric Department and its construction of new power schemes. Screening with a general election imminent, the latter film was denounced as containing "heavy doses of Labour propaganda"in the New Zealand Observer. The following year Indictment!, showing the desperate circumstances of some elderly Aucklanders, was made to promote an Auckland City Mission appeal for funds to build an old people's home.
After Neuline Studios was placed in receivership in late 1950, Steele carried on film production at a much reduced level through his company Steele Photography. There were staff changes too. Ron Bowie took up a position at the NFU in early 1953, and new cameraman Robert Clough took over from Leslie Fraser.
The opening of new air routes brought regular opportunities to produce colour films, promoting the new services to those who could afford travel by air. The luxury lifestyle associated with international air travel was a bonus Steele could also enjoy; he travelled to exotic destinations to make films for TEAL and Qantas like Fijian Holiday (1951), Tahiti on the Coral Route (1953), Boomerang (1959) and Flight to the Orient (1959).
Another ongoing client carried over from the Neuline days was the NZ Co-operative Dairy Company, for whom Steele directed Leaves from a Dairy Diary (1956), showing the growth of the Waikato dairy industry.
Television commercials made by Steele were among the first to go on air when commercial TV began in New Zealand, in April 1961. Short industrial films continued to be made, but for Steeletelefilm — as the company was now known — producing commercials became the main focus. In 1966 the company moved from the old studio in Owens Road Epsom, to a large new studio in Great South Road. Ex-NFU director David Fowler was taken on as general manager and occasional director of prestige films for cinema and TV release. He spent two years with SteeleTelefilm.
Cameraman/director Sigmund Spath, well-known for his underwater photography, was another employee whose talent Steele encouraged. Spath’s film Expedition to the Poor Knights Islands, which screened on television in 1972, was one of the last major films produced by Steele.
Having passed his seventieth birthday, Robert Steele retired in 1973. Declining health had slowed him down, but when he died on 4 January 1975 there was champagne in the fridge ready for the next party – his wake.
Writing and original research by Clive Sowry; published on 12 October 2016
John Berry, 'He kept his cool till the end' – Sunday Herald, 12 January 1975, page 4
John Gundry, 'Robert Steele – Film Maker' – Voice Over No 14 April 1975, page 30
Selwyn Toogood, Out of the Bag (Auckland: Methuen Publications NZ, 1979)
Auckland Correspondent, 'Gracie's Spanish-Style Home' – New Zealand Free Lance, 21 August 1946, page 5
Steele, Robert Fearn (Death Notice) – The NZ Herald, 6 January, 1975, page 10 (section 2)
Robert Steele, 'Film Production for Industry' – New Zealand Manufacturer, 13 December 1965, page 79 (Volume 18 no 3)
'Commercials from Steele Telefilm' (Advert) – The Listener, 9 November 1962, page 24 (Volume 47 no 1208)
'Good Commercials come from Steele Telefilm' (Advert) - The Listener, 22 June 1962, page 13 (Volume 47 no 1188)
Writer unknown, 'Birth of Dairying Industry Shown in Authentic Film' – The Waikato Times, 14 August 1956, page 6
Writer unknown, 'Plight of Old Folk' – The NZ Herald, 16 March 1950, page 8
Writer unknown, “City of Service – Hamilton” – New Zealand Manufacturer, 15 December 1949, page 21 (Volume 1 no 6)
Writer unknown, 'Not the National Film Unit!' – New Zealand Observer, 23 November 1949, page 19
Writer unknown, 'Local Film Cameras Shooting N.Z. Documentaries' – The Auckland Star, 13 October 1949, page 6
Writer unknown, 'Gracie Farewelled' – The Auckland Star, 10 August 1945, page 3
Writer unknown, 'Film Producer Leaves for South' – The Telegraph (Brisbane), 10 May 1935, page 5
Writer unknown, 'Narrow Escape. Of Cinema Photographer. From 12ft. Shark' – Mackay Daily Mercury (Australia), 18 April 1934, page 7
Writer unknown, 'Auckland-made Film' – The NZ Herald, Auckland, 26 October 1931, page 14
Writer unknown, 'Amateur Film' – The Evening Post, 12 September 1930, page 5
Writer unknown, ' “The Ghost Train” To-night' – The Evening Post, 14 September 1927, page 5
Writer unknown, 'Au Revoir to Mr. Fearn-Steele' – The Advertiser (Adelaide), 8 April 1925, page 9